How I learned to stop worrying and fix the draft

Now that the draft lottery is done with, and the playoffs have begun, talk has shifted from how the draft is broken to how the Canucks and Penguins are broken. Fair enough. But the draft system is still the same. If you believe that teams should not be rewarded for poor performance – even if there was not really any tanking this year – then you think the system needs a shake up.

The solution is out there, but it’s going to take a mad scientist to come up with the right combination of give and take to make this thing some to life. Come and watch!

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It seems to be the place of fans of non-playoff teams to look for ways to change the way the NHL is run, be it the number of points awarded each game, or engineering the way the draft order is determined. Funny that fans of playoff teams aren’t too worried about these sorts of things at this time of year… Sad, they are missing out on some interesting discussion!

I think that there is an interesting and fair way to determine draft order. It is a bit of a fantasy though, as it involves quite a bit of juggling with the schedule. But I think it would be fun. Follow closely.

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The first thing I would do is reduce the number of games each team plays in the regular season down to about 70 games. How you want to distribute them is up to you. One possibility is 4×14=56 in conference, and then 15 out of conference for 71, but it really depends on the impending realignment.

Sort that out.


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The main obstacle to this is of course that more games mean more money for the NHL teams. The NHL makes $1096.6 million per year in gate receipts (based on 2009-10 numbers), which works out to about $36.5 million per team, or $891,544.71 per game. So cutting 6 games would cost each team, on average $5.35 million. Of course, this is different for each team (e.g. Toronto makes over $90million at the gate, while Phoenix makes about $18million!), but looking at the average can give us an idea.

So how can we save the NHL teams just over $5 million each, to help them buy in? (I realise that there are more sources of revenue per game, but I don’t have access to all the numbers, so I’m just ballparking it. Bear with me). Well here is an idea that will not only save the owners money, but improve the quality of the game.

There were 7961 man games lost to injury in the NHL this season, for an average of 265 per team.Average NHL salary is $2.4 million which is $110,564.46 per game. Players, generally, are still paid when they are on the DL. Average injury cost to an NHL team then is $29,299,581.90. 

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That’s almost half the salary cap! I don’t have the numbers on this, but I wonder if playing fewer games in the same period of time, or maybe shorten the season by a week or two (which is normally 4-6 games) (i.e. decrease schedule density) would result in fewer injuries. If the number of man-games lost to injury can be reduced by 50 (18%) by reducing the schedule by 12 games (14%), then it would make financial sense to play fewer games.

I also think the quality of hockey would rise, if teams have more practice time and more recovery time. Again, I don’t have the numbers, but this seems like basic exercise physiology. Less load=less risk of injury=higher quality performance. Someone should do a study of rates of injury vs schedule density.

So! If we can get the owners to agree to play fewer games in the season, then perhaps perhaps? Have you seen the playoffs this year? Damn skippy!.


We have an appetite for more post-season games. That’s how we can fix the draft system. In the two weeks that we’ve saved, there is time for a home-and-home, single elimination tournament among non-playoff teams, the results of which determine draft order. Win the tournament, win the first pick overall. Fans can cheer for a draft pick and wins at the same time!

Financially, everyone wins, since all 30 teams will get "playoff" revenue. Making the tournament a home-and-home (total goals or something, like in soccer) 24 extra games will be played. That’s an extra $20million, or almost $1.5million per team. Add that to the injury savings, and your’re good. Plus, playoff games are at a premium, so there may even be more money there.

This is, I realise, quite an elaborate plot to help make the draft order more fair. But, while the lottery is simple, it’s also rewarding failure, and, even if teams don’t actually tank, it’s less fun for the fans to be hoping for losses than wins. This way, every team has an incentive, both competitive and financial, to win every last game.

One last point, since we are dealing with a pure hypothetical here. I would love to see the NHL go to a soccer-style relegation system. The end of season elimination tournament would be the relegation tourney as well. The top 6 teams in the AHL could then come up and replace the first 6 teams out of the elimination tournament.

That would be cool.

Or we could throw those AHL teams into the tourney, expand it, and see how they did. I can see how that might embarrass some long-standing NHL franchises and of course the issue of "farm teams" would complicate the transition. Still, it’s fun to dream.

Maybe that way, Mike Zigomanis would get his shot in the NHL.

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  • A simpler system was presented at this year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

    The full details are here, but basically what would happen is that once teams were eliminated from the playoffs they’d start collecting points toward draft position. The worst teams would be eliminated first, and thus have more time to collect points. Every team would have an incentive to win every game.

    • DieHard

      I heard about this before and just re-read it. There is a lot of merit to it. St. Louis with the first last year (yikes) probably wouldn’t have happened if this was in effect though.

  • You know how bad teams can stay bad forever? By making Draft Order dependent on WINNING something.

    Christ. Pittsburgh, Washington, and Chicago would still be mired in the basement of the league. Columbus would never have a shot of coming out of their slump. Going back to Pittsburgh, they might have actually lost their team in the early 2000’s if not for the draft bringing them Marquee players to market to the fans.

    The Rich get Richer, the poor get poorer under your new approach. Or at very least, the poor get poorer.

    The Draft is not broken. It works to create competitive balance. It isnt a reward for failure. It’s a measure to prevent perpetual failure. For the most part it’s done a solid job when combined with competent leadership.

  • I Am The Law

    This sounds similar to Bill Simmons’ “Entertaining as Hell Tournament”, only the prize is the number 1 pick, instead of the 8th playoff seed.

    The major problem is that this issue would probably have to be collectively bargained between the owners and the players. As it would likely also lead to a reduction in players salaries either directly (we pay less as you play less), or indirectly (as a percentage of revenue), it might take more than promising players a little bit less wear-and-tear on their bodies to get them on board.

    And does it make sense to have a home-and-home for one tournament while having a “best of seven” for another tournament, in the same league?

    Also, in regards to revenue, from what I understand, a team tends to lose money when it has a playoff round and doesn’t advance (travel, bonuses, stadium costs, and so forth), so I’m skeptical about the math.

    I’m not saying that you idea is incorrect, but I believe that there’s major holes that would have to be plugged up before it could be viable.

  • The big problem with a playoff round is that the NHL cares a lot more about competitive balance than it does about rewarding winning.

    With a post-season draft tournament, teams that stink will probably lose (just like they do during the regular season). Then they won’t get a top draft pick. Without a top draft pick, they will continue to lose. They’ll keep missing out on top draft picks. Pretty soon, instead of a team like Pittsburgh returning to form, they’re relocating to Kansas City.

    The NHL doesn’t like relocation. They like market stability. From their perspective, it’s far better to ensure bad teams get good players than it is to ensure every team does its darndest over the season’s last 10 games.

  • Aitch

    I see two flaws…

    1) “the two weeks you save” what do the playoffs teams do during this time? Or why can’t this elimination tournament happen as the same time as the NHL playoffs?

    2) This sort of elimination systems favours the stronger non-playoff teams. The teams that are weaker and have trouble attracting free agents on their own will truly become 2nd tier teams in this system. Rather than a team hitting rock bottom and knowing there is some light at the end of the tunnel, they can now hit rock bottom and keep on digging. That’s not exactly a good formula for keeping bums in seats for struggling franchises.